Another Brain Game Proves Its Worth, This Time as a Dementia Treatment

From Game Show. Credit: Sahakian Lab

Ever since Brain Age landed in 2006, we’ve been inundated with claims about brain training’s value — some so outlandish they’ve lead to massive FTC fines. For years, research done on brain training apps regularly showed that they were either ineffective or effective only at making users better at the specific games being trained. Claims of better focus, a higher IQ or improved cognition have generally been completely overstated.

Bit by bit, that’s shifting. Last year, PEAK’s Wizard memory game was found to be effective for improving the memory of patients with schizophrenia. Last month, we shared news of a neurofeedback-based brain training game that helped with PTSD symptoms. And now, University of Cambridge researchers have created a brain training game that may do what so many other games have promised: keep our brains young.

Specifically, Game Show has been shown to help improve the memory of patients in the earliest stages of dementia. Created in part by Professor Barbara Sahakian, the researcher who helped develop and study the Wizard memory game, Game Show has players take part in a game show to win gold coins. Each round challenges them to associate different geometric patterns with different locations. As they succeed, they win more coins, the game gets harder, and an enthusiastic host encourages them to keep going.

The study, published in The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, looked at its effects on amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), which doctors consider the stage between healthy aging and dementia. In tests of episodic memory, aMCI patients who played the game made around a third fewer errors, needed fewer trials and improved their memory scores by about 40 percent. They also reported enjoying the game, and wanting to keep playing — a key factor in adherence, as researchers have found in other studies of game-based treatments.

“Good brain health is as important as good physical health. There’s increasing evidence that brain training can be beneficial for boosting cognition and brain health, but it needs to be based on sound research and developed with patients,” said Professor Sahakian. “It also need to be enjoyable enough to motivate users to keep to their programmes. Our game allowed us to individualise a patient’s cognitive training programme and make it fun and enjoyable for them to use.”

As game development becomes an increasingly popular pursuit for scientists, it’s entirely possible we’ll see apps like Game Show that work for more people in more situations. We might someday see a game like Brain Age that can safely make claims about improving cognition — because it’s been designed by experienced researchers and trialed in genuine studies. In the meantime, they’re only as good as they are fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.